The Plan To Make Community College Free

Obama wants the government to cover the first two years:

Suzy Khimm relays the basics:

To qualify for the program, “students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program,” the White House said. The administration estimates that the program would help about 9 million students, saving the average full-time student about $3,800 per year.

Leonhardt thinks it’s “worth acknowledging the potential impact of the plan — which is huge”:

Battles over health care, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention. But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy. Even if a federal program doesn’t pass, the growth of state and local programs — like Chicago’s and Tennessee’s — have a large economic effect.

Reihan isn’t so sure:

I agree that education policy is very important, but unfortunately Leonhardt’s analysis tells us very little about the merits of this particular proposal.

The College Board collects data on trends in college pricing, and Texas A&M economist Jonathan Meer kindly pointed me to their recent work on net prices — that is, net tuition and fees after grant aid — for students attending public institutions, including community colleges. It turns out that in 2011–12, “net tuition and fees at public two–year colleges ranged from $0 for students in the lower half of the income distribution to $2,051 for the highest-income group.” That is, net tuition and fees were $0 for students from households earning $60,000 or less while it was $2,051 for students from households earning over $106,000.

While I don’t doubt that many households in the $106,000-plus range will welcome not having to pay for their children’s community college education, I’m hard-pressed to see why this initiative will have a “huge” impact, given that we’re presumably most concerned about improving community college access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Tim Worstall focuses on “the problem that perhaps some education is in fact just signalling”:

To give an example: back 40 years, just before my university going days, in my native UK some 10% of the population actually went to one. The US attendance rate was very much higher (it expanded well before the UK’s rate did). And in the US at that time it was usual that you must have a BA (or BSc) to get anywhere at all in a professional job of any kind. While an MA (or MSc) was considered to be the minimum to really mark you out as being in the top set academically. At that same time in the UK the simple BA still marked you out as being in that top set (and entry into most professions, including lawyer, accountant and so on, was still possible without a degree at all in anything). As UK university admittance has expanded we’re now much closer to that US model. A mere BA, when 30-40% of the age cohort has one, doesn’t mark you out as anything special. So, that top set go on to do a masters now. And there’s not much evidence that anyone knows any more than they did, or that productivity has increased as a result of the extra years of education. We seem just to be embroiled in a signalling race to no very good purpose.

Margaret Hartmann takes note that the “program would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, which has rejected three Obama proposals aimed at expanding community-college programs”:

And the GOP has already noted that it’s unclear how this program would be funded. The White House said the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost, and participating states would make up the rest. A source told Bloomberg News that the program would cost $5 billion, and experts suggested it could be more like tens of billions of dollars. “With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” said Cory Fritz, House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary.

Ed Morrissey sees the proposal as purely political:

This doesn’t have a prayer of getting passed in this Congress, and he knows it. It’s merely a construct to Show Obama Cares About You, while at the same time gives the media another Republicans Are Just Flint-Hearted Meanies narrative to push.

Sargent admits that Obama’s plan will “will run into a wall of GOP opposition.” But he thinks it raises another question:

How far can Obama go unilaterally to address the deep problems afflicting working and middle class Americans, such as stalled mobility and declining wages? Obama appears to be getting serious about testing the limits of his office on this front. But there is one area where unilateral action could perhaps have more of an impact on wages than any other: The coming battle over overtime pay.

The Plan To Make Community College Free, Ctd

A reader isn’t a fan of this plan:

I sure wish people would stop using the word “free” regarding these kinds of plans. They aren’t free.  I’ll be paying for them.  You’ll be paying for them.

I think that more concentrated “trade school/technical” type of high schools are better than sending everyone to college.  My guess is that for most people the years spent on college would be better spent on preparing to have a trade. It is a cruel trick to play on the working classes to make them think that EVERYONE is going to profit by merely going to college, as if you can’t better yourself without it.  Only the Left will benefit from everyone going to college, since Leftist/Marxist indoctrination is rife amongst Academicians.

Less people should be going to college.  I’ve been to college.  I have my degree. Want to buy it for $100?  I’ll sell it to you. There is very little that college gave me that I couldn’t have obtained on my own, simply by continuing my life-long love of reading (I was reading by age of five, thanks to my mother’s own love of reading).

As a taxpayer, I don’t want to pay for the education of people when it won’t enhance their life.  I would rather pay for more trade schools and technical skills for people.  And by the way, you can get damn rich by being a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician.

More readers sound off:

I can’t help thinking that, regarding this plan from Obama, he’s getting the issue all wrong.

From my perspective, the problem with higher education in America is that too many people need it more than that too few people get it. As it is already, too many college students either don’t want or don’t need what, at its core, a college education actually (and should) offer: a chance to pursue knowledge for its own sake and engage with thought and ideas simply for the sake of doing so. Few people actually enjoy this or can benefit from it, and yet it is really this experience, not job training or acquisition of marketable skills, that college is meant to provide.

Conversely, colleges are comparatively ill-equipped to provide job skills training, since most faculty members’ primary goal is pursuit of new knowledge (research) rather than teaching. Vocational and trade schools, not colleges, are the proper forum to provide Americans who are looking to get ahead with the skills they need to improve their lives, and yet the president is doubling down on the absurd misuse of colleges and universities that is already so pervasive.

As a student at a prestigious (if I may say so myself) university, I can tell you that most students are not there to engage with ideas and acquire knowledge, but to “check the box” on their way to a lucrative career. Academia is simply not meant to be no-cost employee training for corporations, and it is to the detriment of everyone when it gets used this way. The president ought to be focusing on expanding opportunity for those who either choose not to go to college or cannot afford to do so.

Another skeptical reader:

I have given a lot of thought about this based on my own experience. In my smallish hometown back in the late ’90s, when NAFTA was picking off manufacturing right and left, several of the largest factories closed in a short period of time.  Lots of people took advantage of Trade Adjustment Assistance, which basically allows you to receive unemployment benefits for two years as long as you are in a degree program. The tuition wasn’t included (as I recall), but virtually everyone was eligible for full Pell Grants.

Two years later though, the jobs of the future had not arrived. You just had a glut of people with Associate Degrees competing for jobs that paid less than the ones they lost.  Now the president’s new plan would be aimed at young people who have the option of moving to where the better jobs are. So this is definitely not apples to apples. But it’s still going to be many more Associate Degrees, which will make Bachelor Degrees more sought-after.

And how are these folks who needed the free community college tuition going to pay for that? Student loans. Throw in wage stagnation and a larger share of people with these degrees, and round and round we go.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for more education. For cheaper education. I applaud this as a great start. But we need cheaper higher education and higher wages to really make a difference.

Update: Many readers here correct and counter the ones above.

The Plan To Make Community College Free, Ctd

This post is getting a lot of response from the in-tray:

Your skeptical readers perhaps have not read the full proposal from Obama:

Building High-Quality Community Colleges: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that either (1) are academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities, giving students a chance to earn half of the credit they need for a four-year degree, or (2) are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers.

So the proposal appears to include the kind of “vocational and trade school” training your readers prefer. It limits participation to proven programs in high-demand fields, to improve the chances of employment. So when one of your readers writes, “The president ought to be focusing on expanding opportunity for those who either choose not to go to college or cannot afford to do so,” that’s exactly what this program is intended to do.

Another snipes:

You quoted a reader: “Less people should be going to college. I’ve been to college. I have my degree. Want to buy it for $100?” That’s too high a price for a degree from someone who writes “Less people” instead of “Fewer people.” Sorry! Couldn’t resist.

Another refers to that quoted reader as Judge Smails, seen in the above video. Several readers sound off more substantively:

I love Obama’s plan. He is working within the infrastructure that we have but making changes that will help millions. It’s exactly what he did with the ACA and immigration. It’s his MO. God bless him.

My local community colleges are a mix of transfer students and trade students. The transfer students are taking typical freshman and sophomore classes to prepare for transfer to a four-year college.  The trade students take some basic freshman classes (writing, math), but they are focused on exactly the type of job training that your reader thinks they should be getting. They are learning auto repair, engine repair, repair and maintenance of HVAC systems, building trades, horticulture, culinary arts, emergency medical technician, early childhood education, paramedic, medical laboratory technician, radiology tech, criminal justice/police skills, nurse assistant, RN nursing, etc. None of these kids are going to get rich doing this stuff, but they are learning skills that can provide them with a middle-class income.

Another adds, “My school (Orange Coast College) also has a helicopter mechanic training program; if I recall correctly, starting salaries for graduates are near $100k.” Another points out:

Many of these jobs were, not too long ago, learned on the job; many were apprenticeship programs, where a master taught apprentices and journeymen while they earned pay for their work. This, sadly, is becoming rare. There has been a shift of training from the employer to employees, and this is particularly true of what’s called the skilled trades.

So the presumption that much of this work is “unskilled” is elitist. If your furnace fails, as mine was, you will hope the person who comes to repair it is highly skilled and proficient at the job. If your car breaks down, you want a skilled mechanic. And if you go out to eat, you’ll probably want the restaurant managed by someone who comprehends how to safely handle food. You want x-ray techs who don’t bombard you with too much radiation.

Your plumber cannot be outsourced; she needs to come to your home or office to do her job. And she needs someplace to learn how to do that job if master plumbers aren’t shouldering the burden of training the next generation of plumbers. That’s where community colleges really matter; and where they offer a wealth of skills for young adults.

Another shifts the debate:

I have no problem with making community college free if we have the resources to spend on educational programs. For one thing, community colleges do provide a lot of the trade and vocational classes that your readers are interested in. My brother dropped out of a four-year liberal arts college and years later has started taking computer classes at a community college that are really beneficial for his job. And it’s much cheaper than traditional college, though it is still expensive for someone who doesn’t make that much to begin with. So making it free would definitely be beneficial for some people, like my brother.

But in a world where educational spending is not unlimited, I just cannot get behind the idea of spending more money on college degrees when we know that early education can make a much bigger difference in a community. I was so much more supportive of the idea of universal pre-K than this. Study after study has demonstrated that getting kids into preschools, even for just a few hours a week, makes serious long-term differences in people’s lives. If we are going to spend money on education, can we at least spend it on programs that we know will make a difference in a big way rather than on programs that might help a few people?

One more reader:

It’s been estimated that it would cost approximately $15-30 billion per year to make ALL public colleges completely free for everyone. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but for some perspective, we spent nearly a trillion dollars to remake a foreign country called Iraq. So for what we paid for that disastrous war (which we’re still fighting), we could have paid for public college for everyone for as many as 66 years!

The Plan To Make Community College Free, Ctd

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel cautions that Obama’s proposal still falls short for many would-be students:

Free tuition, even for two years, is not nearly enough to cover the cost of attending college. Tuition and fees counted for just 21 percent of the budget for students who attend two-year public college and pay for off-campus housing, according to a recent study from College Board. While the average tuition and fees at a community college is $3,347 for the 2014-2015 academic year, housing cost another $7,705, books averaged $1,328 and transportation added up to $1,735. Keep in mind, too, that Obama’s plan also doesn’t cover fees, which schools routinely charge for using labs, campus health centers and computer labs.

Libby Nelson addresses such concerns:

[Obama’s plan] would apply before Pell Grants. That means that poor students would have more Pell Grant money left over to help them pay for books and other life expenses. But Obama’s college plan would also help a constituency largely ignored by federal aid programs: families who earn too much for federal financial aid but aren’t wealthy enough to afford thousands of dollars of college bills.

Douglas-Gabriel acknowledges the Pell Grant factor but finds that “many students could still wind up working full time or taking out loans, albeit smaller amounts, to pay the difference.” Mike Konczal’s take:

Everyone—poor and middle class—would benefit from college cost control. Indeed this addresses one of the main conservatives complaints about student aid.

If the supply of education is hard to move, then subsidizing education through aid will raise the price of education, as colleges capture some of that as a subsidy. Worse, it also increases costs for students who don’t receive the subsidy, resulting in price inflation.

Fair enough. But if that’s true, then it must also be true that lowering the price of tuition directly with a public option will reduce prices across the board. Suddenly state and private colleges will have to consider if they offer enough value to make their price over community colleges a reasonable value. This is what the economist JW Mason refers to as progressive supply-side economics, and it’s part of the reason public options are so valuable. There’s a reason the CBO keeps scoring the public option as a major cost saver in healthcare. It’s not just the lower price of the public option; it’s that a public option “would tend to increase the competitive pressure on [other] insurers” in the exchanges, leading them ”to lower their premiums, which would further reduce federal subsidies.” This won’t break the back of rising higher-education costs, but it will help.

Scott Shackford, on the other hand, is deeply critical of Obama’s plan:

It’s not the students being subsidized, it’s the college. So they’re going to do everything in their power to keep these students attending, even if it results in students leaving college with associate’s degrees they can barely read, which will subsequently devalue the degrees in the eyes of employers.

Even in an era of grade inflation, though, community colleges also have terrible completion rates for students seeking two-year degrees. The Chronicle of Higher Education offers a handy map showing completion rates lower than 10 percent in states like Indiana and Rhode Island after three years of attendance. The best state, South Dakota, has a 52.9 percent completion rate. For-profit colleges [like Bryman College], for all their criticism for taking advantage of students (and federal subsidies), have a higher graduation rate than community colleges. … If a student falls into the extremely high drop-out rate for students, the government (and the taxpayers) don’t get the money back. So the White House is promoting a program funded by taxpayers to subsidize—wait, I mean further subsidize—a system that has baked in an extremely high failure rate.

But again, this program is not a subsidy for students. It’s a subsidy for faculty and college level administrative bloat.

And Andrew Flowers shows how such colleges are in more need now than in recent years:

As my colleague Ben Casselman pointed out in April, college enrollment is declining for recent high school graduates (those 16 to 24 years old). And it’s falling fastest for community colleges. This drop comes after a surge in enrollment during the Great Recession. For those graduating high school between 2007 and 2009, the share enrolled at two-year colleges rose to 27.7 percent from 24.1 percent. After reaching a high with the 2012 graduating class, the share of these young people at two-year colleges dropped sharply in 2013, to 23.8 percent. …

With better employment opportunities available for high school graduates, community colleges might just need the incentive of free tuition to lure more students.

Follow the entire Dish debate on the topic here.

The Plan To Make Community College Free, Ctd

Popping up in the in-tray, Freddie comments on the discussion thread:

I note with a little frustration that one of your readers has endorsed the “trade school is the answer to our economic problems” meme. I don’t blame that particular reader, as it’s a very common claim. But as I noted in a piece last year, there’s essentially no credible evidence to suggest that we need to send more people to trade school. The ranks of the jobs with the highest unemployment are riddled with skilled trades, which is not surprising in the post-financial crisis world; skilled trades are massively exposed to the boom-and-bust cycle of the housing market. I’m not saying that I’m sure that more people going to trade school is a terrible idea, and like the reader I am an opponent of the “college for everyone” attitude. But it’s an idea that gets asserted as a solution a lot with a remarkable lack of compelling evidence for it.

While I agree that more education is not the solution, I differ from your reader (with his complaints of Marxist academics) in that I believe the problems with our labor market stem from very deliberate policy choices to favor the desires of a tiny percentage of the vastly rich over the needs of the great mass of working people.

Several more readers sound off at length:

Your readers who think Obama’s community college plan is a good idea would do well to read the September 2013 article from the Washington Post titled “Is Government Aid Actually Making College More Expensive?

To anyone who has studied economics, the thought immediately comes to mind. The rapid increase in tuition costs happened right when the government started spending extraordinary sums to subsidize college tuition. It seems very unlikely this is a coincidence. As with anything, there is a market price for college, and giving out money to people to be spent specifically on college allows colleges to charge more than the market price. The Post article reviews all the research on this topic. From the last paragraph of the article: “All but one study I’ve seen found some evidence of a price response to increases in aid, for some section of the higher ed market.”

Here’s a likely outcome if government starts paying for two-year community college: four-year universities will raise their prices. The reason for this is because their customers were always willing to spend a certain total amount of money on an education. If government foots the bill for the first two years, the university providing the second two years can raise its prices and find its customers still willing to attend, since they got the first two years for free.

Another illustrates a point made by Shackford that, in the reader’s words, “Obama’s proposal will incentivize community colleges to dilute their curriculum to ensure they get a steady stream of funding from the federal government”:

The proposal requires student maintain a C- average.  Instructors and teachers will be pressured to grant C’s even when students don’t deserve it or will back students who appeal their low grades. This already occurs to some extent.  The Mrs. is an adjunct at a local community college for a course program that requires students keep a C- in all classes to maintain enrollment.  Her students who have prior military service get their tuition paid by the federal government.  She has some students who are barely literate.  When they inevitably fail, they often dispute the grade and the administration always backs the student for the simple fact they want the money.

The average incoming college freshman reads at the 7th grade level because these same incentives promote grade inflation at the high school level.  School simply do not flunk and expel students because the number of students enrolled determines the funding they receive from the state and federal government.

And regarding your reader’s comparison of another to Judge Smails, a more apt movie analogy may be Ben Kingsley’s character in Searching for Bobby Fischer

Are we actually helping young adults, or society at large, just because we give students a certificate that is meaningless?  Like Josh’s Grand Master certificate in the film, a community college degree will mean nothing.

Another provides “a view from a Community College Professor”:

Many of the statements by readers reflect a lack of specific knowledge regarding community colleges, their role and their student populations.  They seem to equate some idyllic image of Harvard+Animal House with all of college; a dream world of fuzzy ideas, tweed wearing professors and Voltaire.

1. In NJ, all of our courses are legally transferable to public (and most private) schools in NJ.  The Lampitt Bill has streamlined a lot of our coursework.  Gone are the electives – there’s no time for leftist indoctrination of academians.  Also, community college is overwhelmingly taught by part-time adjuncts.  They are not researchers, writers on sabbatical and certainly not Marxist indoctrinators (BTW, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism failed, so no one indoctrinates that philosophy anymore, or ever – please take a history course at your local community college to find out how and why).

If you took a factory and transferred the model to education you would have a modern community college.  I really wish community college was that idyllic dream of high-minded liberalness the political right accuses us of but, alas, we go to work, teach our classes overfull classes, prep more classes, deal with student problems and concerns, and then grade, edit, and comment on papers and tests – all for a pay significantly less than the level of required degree would indicate. Ph.Ds are held by less than 1% of Americans yet professors earn decidedly middle American wages. I could triple my income if I went into international corporate consulting, for example.

2.  We have over 100 certificate programs, from cooking to nursing.  Our dental program is 35 years old  – and gives free cleanings to kids in the community.  The great lie of education is that the for-profit schools do this training while college does some soft liberal arts reading and thinking stuff.  In fact, we offer more programs than the three for-profit schools in our neighborhood and do it at a tenth of the cost.  (Our advertising budget though can’t compete.)  Air conditioner repair – we got it.  Computer animation – got it.  Want to build apps for a startup? We got all the hands-on coursework you need. Community colleges have filled this space for a long time – but the stigma that they are the “13th grade” looms large.  More money would mean more services, which would mean more programs, certificates and training.

3.  70% of our students are remedial.  This means they are not prepared for college-level reading, writing or math.  Reading I is a third grade reading level – and those classes are full.  So while we should spend more money on pre-K education, there is still a massive number of people failed by K-12 education.  With high-stakes testing, No Child Left Behind, and teacher pay tied to grades, these numbers have gone up.  There is less incentive to educate and more incentive to pass high-cost standardized tests.

4. Community College students are, in our case, poorer, less educated, and much more racially diverse than the surrounding schools.  Those with means and drive head off to the private schools of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.  Or they go to the public schools of Northern Jersey and Pennsylvania. We also take in a far larger number of immigrants, ESL students, first-time college families, working adults, mentally and physically handicapped, and military veterans than the surrounding colleges.  All of these students require expensive services and programs.   The idea is that we educate a large number of people who have limited choices in their education – and who are expensive to educate.

Which brings us to the most important part of the President Obama’s proposal: forcing states to pay. Our school was set up in the 1960s, and the charter indicated that for tuition, the state and the county would each contribute an equal share to operating costs (33% each).  In 2014, our budget received 12% from the county and 17% from the state meaning tuition made up 71% of our operating budget.  All the pledges of “no new taxes” is being paid for by higher tuition, fees and less services.  This budget situation is simply breaking the back of the school and the students.  We are not a school that can charge $50K for tuition nor can we pre-screen our students.  If the state just paid the amount it guaranteed in our charter, we could educate students pretty easily and cheaply.  So if the president can force states to pay their actual fair share (or more), that would be a budgetary godsend for us.